By Stephen King
On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day, the town of Chester’s Mill is suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. The barrier of the Dome is total and absolute proving to resist any force it encounters. There is no going in and no coming out, an opportunity the town’s second selectman Big Jim Rennie is happy to exploit. No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when — or if — it will go away.
Dale Barbara, the town’s short-order cook, finds himself on the wrong side of the Dome and a target for Big Jim’s son, Junior. A young, troubled man who hordes a terrible secret in a dark pantry and will stop at nothing to see Barbara out of the way. Dale has no choice but to team up with an unlikely bunch of townsfolk including the local newspaper owner, a physician’s assistant, a minister, a widow, and three brave kids. Against them stands a corrupt police force and a sociopathic politician who will stop at nothing to keep the town in a vice grip. But their main adversary is the Dome itself because time isn’t just short. It’s running out.
Under the Dome sat mockingly on my shelf for several years before I finally decided to pick it up. How ironic that I wanted to read it for the spooky season and the narrative takes place the week leading up to Halloween.
As to be expected from a King novel, his character work was superb though the sheer volume of townspeople was so extensive that he included a guide at the front of the book to help readers keep track. Initially, I started trying to draw a character map to show how people related to one another and gave up after it became too involved. At 1,072 pages for the hardcover edition, trust me when I say you have plenty of time to learn the major players.
King mentioned in his author’s note that he wanted to make sure the story kept a foot hard on the gas. Usually, with a book this long, that would be quite a feat, yet he accomplished this easily by directing the readers towards whichever townsperson happened to be on a mission at any given moment. When one character had a lull, he would shift our attention to another who was on the move, and this ensured there was never a dull moment.
I appreciated that an uncomfortable sense of foreboding began early not just because we don’t know what will happen with the Dome but also because of the volatile nature of small-town politics. The mystery of where the Dome came from and why can be thought of as the slow-burning, overarching theme while the politics and individual contributions of the townspeople are really what keeps the story moving. We know things are progressively getting worse, but we don’t know just how bad they will get until the end.
I enjoy King’s horror as much as the next Constant Reader but a warning from a friend: reading this will expose you to violent rape, teeth/eye gore, and animal death (including that of pet dogs). The story hurts and the death of a pet in any story always seems to hurt the worst to me. Under the Dome feels more like the Stanford Prison Experiment to see how members of the town would treat one another if no outside interference was allowed. We witness people fall into their roles, be manipulated, falsely accused, and murdered. This is a story about human nature, and I think that’s why, in some ways, a story about 2,000 residents is more brutal than even The Stand. Don’t get me wrong, King will never match The Stand in terms of the cost of human life given he wipes out trillions by decimating 99% of the world’s population. That said, I would argue that the population reduction of Chester’s Mill was more impactful because most of the world was still normal. Every day people living their normal lives are left to speculate and gawk at the small town left to fend for itself and fight itself under the Dome. Nothing but rats in a cage or ants under a microscope.
I could tell King had fun writing this story and it’s always a plus when he adds something either sci-fi or supernatural in a meaningful way. Here we get his classic trope of kids knowing what the adults don’t, at least in the beginning. It was a fun ride, and I would definitely recommend this book if you are not afraid of the length.
Overall rating: 4.5